How do Americans really feel about corporate America? Are businesses, in our collective psyche, the drivers of wealth, innovation and jobs? Or a profit-sucking engine of greed and exploitation?
The answer: Yes.
A new survey fills in more of the details of Americans’ nuanced picture of the corporate sector — and in particular how those views of business in the United States compare with the rest of the world.
There’s a lot to parse in the survey, from the business network CNBC and the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Over the summer, they surveyed about 25,000 Internet users in 25 nations, including both developed and emerging economies, to understand their views about big business, the relationship between business and government, and more. (The full Corporate Perception Indicator survey is here. Keep in mind that in emerging markets where only a fraction of citizens have Internet access, the survey will tend to be less reliable in capturing the opinion of the population at large).
When you look at the finer details, it appears that in gauging whether Americans (and residents of other countries) view business positively or negatively, it matters a great deal what, precisely, you ask.
For example, when asked whether corporations have too much, too little or just the right amount of influence over our economic future, 48 percent of Americans chose “too much.” That’s roughly in the middle of 24 percent in China and 63 percent in Brazil.
Graphic | Countries Differ on Whether Corporations Are Too PowerfulA chart comparing people’s views of corporations across various nations.
But interestingly, you get very different results with a similar question phrased in a more theoretical way. Is it a good thing or bad thing for corporations to be strong and influential? Only 31 percent of Americans answered that it is a good thing, among the lowest of the countries surveyed and far below the 60 and 70 percent levels in some emerging countries.
Graphic | Most Americans Are Skeptical of Corporate InfluenceA chart comparing the views of people in various nations about the power of corporations.
Similarly, Americans are more likely than respondents in any country surveyed except Italy to believe that corporate lobbyists exercise a high degree of influence over the national government, with 59 percent of American survey respondents saying that corporate lobbyists have “a lot of influence” over policy.
Let me try to make sense of these results, which would seem on their face to be contradictory:
When it comes to business exerting power over the economy, Americans have mixed views but are generally comfortable. But when it comes to business exerting power over government, they are much more exercised.
Americans aren’t antibusiness, in other words. They’re just against business having what they see as too much power in Washington.
Compare that with China, where citizens seem to view businesses as less powerful in terms of lobbying (only 19 percent seeing a lot of influence by corporate lobbyists, a full 40 percentage points lower than in the United States) but are more likely to believe it is good for companies to be strong and influential. One might imagine that Chinese citizens see less a phenomenon in which business overly influences government and one more in which government overly influences businesses.
Indeed, a remarkable pattern stands out. In some of the places where big business has the least power and capitalist economies are the least developed, optimism and support for the corporate sector is highest.
In Communist Party-led China, 74 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “it is a good thing when corporations are strong and influential, because they are engines of innovation and economic growth.” That is around three times the level of support found in capitalist paradises like Britain, the United States and Australia.
Perhaps we all want what we don’t have.
Graphic | Fear vs. HopeA chart comparing hope about vs. fear of corporations in various nations.
And when asked whether they view the role of corporations in the future as a reason for hope or for fear, some of the highest levels of fear were in the United States and other prosperous Western nations. The highest levels of hope in the corporate sector were in the emerging Asian economies of Indonesia, China, Malaysia and India.
In other words, the less developed a corporate sector is in a given country, the more hopeful its people are that it will be a force for the better.
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